Sunday, 20 September 2020

The Wild Wild West: The Night of the Lord of Limbo

 Sadly Diana Rigg has been added to the list of my TV heroes who have left us. The internet is naturally full of tributes, however I am watching this show at the moment and thought I would post about it. Robert Conrad has also died this year.

For anyone who likes the kind of bizarre TV I do, The Wild Wild West is a gift. It is... Well, wild, I suppose. It is described as a western, espionage and science fiction show, which aimed to take the James Bond concept back to the nineteenth century. The kind of conceits we find in the wilder Avengers episodes are therefore common here, for example this episode has both magic and time travel. What's not to love?

Topically, the subtext here is that the baddie is a former colonel in the confederate army who wants to use his ability to change time to go back and change the outcome of the civil war. Obviously ImI a foreigner and history isn't my strong point but I understand that to mean that he would like the US to be built on slavery and the inferiority of Black people, which therefore means our heroes are fighting against this. Even the Avengers couldn't have come up with such a weird plot but the megalomaniac plan is exactly the kind of evil nonsense the Avengers fight against. We mustn't underestimate Vautrain because he does actually have the power to make Gordon disappear between dimensions.

There is what could be a shortcoming in this episode because it takes unreality to levels rarely seen in TV. In fact if you get into it, this whole episode is very much like a nightmare, and is calculated to cause dis-ease. The nightmarish quality is increased by the fact that even though Colonel Vautrain is obviously a monster, he is a monster who has lost both legs, with the emotional distress this would cause. Normally this should be a feature of a sympathetic character, so brilliantly we are torn between feeling sorry for him and being repulsed.

There is something wrong though with the way the James Bond thing is translated to this show, which is that while there is no apparent sex going on, Conrad himself is the only apparent sex object. In a Bond film he will definitely have sex at some point and there will be loads of 'Bond girls'. Bizarrely here, West goes around with his male partner and there are no Bond girls. I don't feel like it is gay coded, but West is the only sex object, to the extent that in one episode he tears his trousers and the scene of him fighting basically in his underpants is left in. What is going on? Well there is no obvious explanation that springs to mind and I wonder whether this strange treatment of the character is a major flaw.

For this episode though, I don't think there are any flaws at all - the only reason you wouldn't like it is if you don't like this sort of thing.

8 comments:

Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling (Blast From The Past!):

Between 1961 and 1965, The USA observed the Civil War Centennial, which was mainly a commercial enterprise aimed at the nation's children.
"Yank or Reb?" Kids could buy toys, T-shirts, caps in blue or gray, all kinds of stuff.
Folksingers sang the songs, movies and TV told stories ...
... and somehow, the subject of slavery was discreetly avoided.
US TV was at the receding end of the Western Glut (Wild Wild West was one of the last hits of the genre, borderline as it was); most of the long-running series, such as Wagon Train and Rawhide, were set in the immediate aftermath of the War Between The States, depicting the sectional rivalries between North and South, while gracefully evading the racial aspects (most of the time, anyway).
The foregoing is, of course, an oversimplification: Looked at in 2020 terms, many of the films and TV shows seem incredibly naive to "millennials".

How this applies to Wild Wild West:
This series worked from the template of Saturday afternoon serials - the "cliffhangers" of the movie days, with fantasticated plots and bravura villains and outlandish gadgetry.
I always found it amusing that WWW was produced at what had been in earlier times the lot and stages of Republic Pictures, home of serials and B-Westerns for most of its existence (by this time, the facilities were owned by CBS, and were used on most of the network's filmed series).

I don't know how you're watching WWW, by which I mean in what order you're viewing the episodes: if you're going in broadcast order, you're midway through the second season, which was the first set filmed in color, which caused the crew to go hog-wild on effects.
This was when the producer's reins had been assumed by Bruce Lansbury (whose sister Angela has been mentioned here a few times); he was under instructions by CBS to try and control the wilder impulses of WWW's creator Michael Garrison, who had some really wild ideas for the show - but that's another story ...
As to "The Lord Of Limbo", the villain Vautrain was played by Ricardo Montalban - born in Mexico, a naturalized US citizen of many years standing, with strong feelings about racial and ethnic matters; his appearance was more geared to the wild melodrama of it all, which he enjoyed playing in all media.
So for what it's worth, I feel that the best way to watch Wild Wild West is to stay at surface level: it's a Saturday afternoon cliffhanger (even though it ran on Friday evenings back in the day), so enjoy as such.

More later, if you like ...

joppy said...

Interesting, I'd not come across the Wild Wild West before, except in the peculiar Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh movie. I must keep an eye out for episodes. If you want to read a similar tale try Harry Turtledove's Guns Of The South, which has a group of South African time travelling mercenarys trying to help Robert E Lee win the Civil War by supplying machine pistols and modern medecines .

John said...

Ah, that's helpful context, thank you.
I am actually watching for the wild kookiness of it and have a particular affection for whacking great anachronisms.
ImI watching in DVD order on a region 1 box set of season 2, which is the only season I have so far because it was the cheapest on eBay
You are welcome to provide more at any time, Mike.

Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling - Again:

If you're doing Season 2 in DVD order, this means that you've already seen:
- "The Night Of the Golden Cobra", with Boris Karloff as a villainous Sultan (this isn't long after he played Mother Muffin on Girl From UNCLE);
- "TNO The Returning Dead" with Sammy Davis Jr and Peter Lawford (Wild Wild West had become a series that stars wanted to appear on);
- "TNO The Man-Eating House" with Hurd "Dorian Gray" Hatfield and Bill "Hamilton Burger" Talman;
- "TNO The Ready-Made Corpse" which gets noticed these days because the main villain is Carroll O'Connor (pre-Archie Bunker);
- "TNO The Infernal Machine" guest-starring Ed Begley Senior - just after he'd won an Oscar for "Sweet Bird Of Youth" (as I said, stars wanted to do this show);
- "TNO The Raven" and " ... The Green Terror", the first two of four appearances this season by Michael Dunn as Dr. Loveless (he's got two more later in the season).
- and you're just halfway through Season Two.
All four seasons of WWW are like this: 1966-67 was the first full-color TV season on all the US TV networks, and they all went to town.
You could possibly tell us when and how British TV had its own color binge, most likely a story all its own.

I ought to tell you about the whole "sex-symbol" thing you alluded to in your post.
Here in the states, it was a bit complicated.
The USA has always like to posit TV as a "family medium", something that every member of the family could watch safely(?).
From the start, TV stars of all ages (and both genders, comes to that) were supposed to appeal to every member of the family, individually and as a group.
In the case of Wild Wild West, Bob Conrad (mid '30s) and Ross Martin (mid '40s - and both men were likely fudging their real ages at this time) had considerable female fan followings in their respective age groups (with more than a little overlap on all sides).
Nearly all the adventure shows from this period had vocal fan followings like these: Man From UNCLE (Solo & Illya), Star Trek (practically the whole male cast), the remaining Westerns and S-F series.
Even the shows with solo stars, like The Fugitive, Tarzan, Run For Your Life, and a bunch of others that didn't quite make the grade - it was a sign of the times I guess ...
This was also true of the British imports: if we noticed the obvious age difference between Steed and Mrs. Peel, we Yanks just didn't care (Tara King was different, but that was another story ...).
Somewhere, someone has possibly written a scholarly book about this, and I sincerely hope I never have to read it.

Anyway, this is what I know (?) about this, and if you can figure it out, let me know, because in 50+ years I never have ...

John said...

Joppy, thank you very much for commenting. What a fascinating sounding book!

John said...

Thank you again Mike. No I hope not to read it either.
I suppose the difference would therefore be that Bond was intended for cinema and WWW for TV? Of course I have been trying to think of major sex symbols in US TV shows of this time and can't! I keep thinking of Mrs Peel, obviously, and Diana Dors playing in the show I posted about recently. I have therefore revised my view of our TV as being more sexy than yours!

Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling (delayed):
Your comment about the relative "sexiness" of '60s TV (US vs. GB) threw me just a bit.
That decade was my adolescence: here in the States, we generally tended to prefer the clean, well-scrubbed types of girls (at least we always said we did).
I don't know how familiar you might be with a sitcom called Gilligan's Island.
This was a slapstick farce aimed mainly at a kid audience; audiences loved it, "critics" hated it, and it's been running in syndication here pretty much nonstop since its first-run in the Sixties.
There were two very attractive actresses featured herein: Tina Louise as sexy Ginger, and Dawn Wells as sweet-faced Mary Ann (those names should be the tip-off).
Gilligan's attracted a fair-sized following among teenaged boys (myself among them) who endlessly debated who was hotter: Ginger or Mary Ann?
That debate continues to the present day - and it's not limited to those of us who were around for the original show; subsequent generations took up the question, notwithstanding the passage of a half-century or so.
It usually breaks about even between Ginger and Mary Ann (always has, comes to that).
This is one example to serve for many over the years; a more recent example would be WKRP In Cincinnati, which twenty-to-thirty years on still has some contention between fans of Loni Anderson vs. Jan Smithers (and that's another story ...).

Oh, by the way:
Tina Louise and Dawn Wells are the last two surviving cast members of Gilligan's Island.
They're both in their 80s.
(And the truth is, they still look pretty good ...)

As to the overall question:
I think that we in the US will concede the sexiness matter to you in the UK.
After all, you are the ones who call it "Topic A".

All the best from this side of the pond!

John said...

No but Gilligan's Island is a show I've often read about on the blogosphere and wondered whether it was worth pursuing.